The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter will close its overnight warming center for the season on Monday, two weeks earlier than planned, and gradually reduce its beds from 38 to 25 to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
The measures are intended to stop people from gathering in large groups and sleeping in close quarters, in keeping with guidance from public health officials, said Boyd Kronholm, the shelter’s executive director.
But they will reduce the number of options for people who are homeless at a time when they are already struggling to find couches to sleep on, as people minimize the amount of contact they have with others, he said. The shelter has seen an increase in the number of people seeking a place to escape the cold since the virus was reported in Maine last week, he said.
“Some of the people are saying, ‘I was able to stay at so-and-so’s house [last night], but I coughed and [they] asked me to leave,’” so they came to the shelter, Kronholm said. Now, at a time when night temperatures can still dip below freezing, he worries about where they’ll go, he said.
The shelter is also working with the city’s public health department to set up a place for people to stay if they contract the virus but don’t have a home where they can quarantine themselves, such as a gymnasium with cots, Kronholm said. Right now, the shelter is housing two women who are awaiting test results to see if they have the virus, he said.
“If they turn up positive, I’m not sure what will happen at this point,” he said.
Maine reported its first case of the virus on Thursday. As that number has gradually climbed — to 17, as of Monday evening — so has the number of people spending the night inside the shelter’s warming center, a dining room where people can sit overnight if there are no available beds left, Kronholm said.
Fifty people stayed there Sunday night, which is about 15 more people than usual, he said. The warming center was supposed to stay open until the end of March, but the shelter decided to close it Monday to avoid keeping people together in large groups.
The shelter will also make sure that beds are at least 6 feet apart, which means removing at least 13 of its 38 beds, which have been full every night, Kronholm said. The shelter won’t ask people to leave in order to achieve that goal, he said, it just won’t fill beds when people go on their own.
The Hope House Health and Living Center, another shelter on Corporate Drive, also reconfigured its 54 beds to keep residents farther apart, but did not have to reduce its overall capacity, a spokesperson said.